What would the song “Hey There Delilah” have become if the subject of the singer’s yearnings had a different name?
In 2005 when the Plain White T’s hit was written, Delilah was still an uncommon and unconventional name, especially for a college-aged woman. Dozens of likelier options could have satisfied the song’s rhythm. (Hey There Amanda? Melissa? Mackenzie?) But the songwriter was inspired by meeting a rare Delilah, and his choice was ideal for that moment. The specificity of the name served as cultural ballast to keep the earnest paean of a song from floating away. It also shook a lingering taboo from the name Delilah and turned it into a popular hit.
In a 1967 song, the title name offered the opposite of ballast. The “Windy“ who went “tripping down the streets of the city” in the The Association’s hit was a fizzy concoction that made lines like “bending down to give me a rainbow” bouyant rather than preposterous. And in that case too, the perfect name/song match made the baby name soar in popularity. Could anything less have placed the improbable Windy on the top-1000 name charts for 14 years?
And then there’s Hortense, of “Oh! My Sweet Hortense.” Who else could bring to life a lyric like “She ain’t good lookin’ but she’s got good sense”?
I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten that particular belle of song. After all, it has been 97 years since she hit America’s gramophones. Yet doesn’t Sweet Hortense embody her cultural moment as perfectly as Windy and Delilah? Together with her musical cohort, she’s a veritable time machine.
Join me on a trip back to the 1920s, in names and song. I think you’ll find these titular names summon up their very different era, for better and for worse.
“Oh! My Sweet Hortense” (1923)
Oh! Oh! Oh! My sweet Hortense
She ain’t good lookin’ but she’s got good sense
Before I kiss Hortense
I always buy a nickel’s worth of peppermint
She got dandy teeth in her mouth
One points north and the other points south
“True Blue Lou” (1929)
Down in the pool room some of the gang
Were talkin’ of gals they knew
Women are all the same, said Joe
One dizzy bird said, Pal, ain’t you heard
The story of True Blue Lou
“Peggy O’Neill” (1921)
If she walks like a sly little rogue
If she talks with a cute little brogue
Full of rascality
That’s Peggy O’Neill
“Ooo Ernest Are You Earnest With Me” (1922)
Ooo Ernest in your eyes I can see,
Ooo Ernest they look crooked to me
You promised me some flowers when we wed
But I want flowers to be given while I’m livin.
Ooo Ernest you’re a puzzle to me
Look what you turn’d out to be
When you first call’d you were a youth
Now you’ve only got one tooth.
Ernest are you Earnest with me?
“If You Knew Susie” (1925)
If you knew Susie, like I know Susie
Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl
There’s none so classy
As this fair lassie
Oh! Oh! Holy Moses, what a chassis
We went riding, she didn’t balk
Back from Yonkers
I’m the one that had to walk
“Big Bad Bill is Sweet William now” (1924)
Big Bad Bill is Sweet William now
Married life has changed him some how
He’s a man that they all used to fear
Now the people call him sweet papa Willie dear
“Don’t Bring Lulu” (1925)
You can bring ham and crackers and jam
But don’t bring Lulu!
Lulu goes wild, and when she’s wild
She climbs upon the shelf!
She can make a pastor be a dancing master.
Hullabaloo-loo, don’t bring Lulu,
I’ll bring her myself!